Sarvastivada and Mulasarvastivada

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The term Sarvāstivāda means "those who claim that everything exists"; Mūlasarvāstivāda means "root Sarvāstivāda." The Sarvāstivāda school, one of the largest and most important mainstream schools of Indian Buddhism, a subschool of the Sthavira branch, is first attested in inscriptions dating from the first century c.e. and was to become prominent throughout northern India and Central Asia, in particular in the northwestern regions of Kashmir and Gandhāra and the north central region of Mathurā. Traditional sources connect each of these regions with a prominent early Sarvāstivāda teacher: Kashmir with Madhyāntika, and Mathurā with Upagupta. Later, both regions became strongholds of the Sarvāstivāda school, but scholarly disagreement persists as to which region was the original home of the sect.

A substantial portion of the Sarvāstivāda version of the Buddhist canon is preserved in Chinese translation, including the complete monastic disciplinary code (vinaya), a portion of the dialogues (sūtra), the complete collection of canonical scholastic treatises (abhidharma), as well as other postcanonical scholastic texts and commentaries that contain detailed examinations of virtually all aspects of early Indian Buddhist doctrine. The most important of these doctrinal discussions is the hallmark position, "everything exists" (sarvam asti), from which the name, Sarvāstivāda, derives. Here the Sarvāstivādins suggest that "everything," that is all conditioned factors (dharma), "exist" and can exert causal efficacy in the three time periods of the past, present, and future. This position was attacked by rival Buddhist groups as a violation of the fundamental Buddhist position of anitya (impermanence). In response, the Sarvāstivādins developed an elaborate ontology that specified the manner in which past and future factors exist while attempting to preserve their impermanent character.

Multiple recensions of extant Sarvāstivāda texts, as well as references in their scholastic literature to the variant doctrinal positions of different groups of Sarvāstivādins, indicate that internal divisions existed within the larger Sarvāstivāda school. These divisions reflected regional, chronological, doctrinal, and possibly other differences. Regional variation might also explain the origin of one notable Sarvāstivāda group, the Mūlasarvāstivāda. The Mūlasarvāstivādins possessed their own separate monastic code, extant in Sanskrit, and can also possibly be affiliated with certain sūtra dialogues and other miscellaneous texts extant in Chinese translation. While the exact relationship between the Sarvāstivādins and the Mūlasarvāstivādins remains unclear, it is possible that the Mūlasarvāstivādins represented either a later phase in the development of the Sarvāstivāda sectarian stream or perhaps specifically those Sarvāstivādins who were centered in the region of Mathurā. After the decline in prominence of the Sarvāstivādins within the northwestern region of Kashmir and Gandhāra, the Sarvāstivādins of Mathurā may have adopted the name Mūlasarvāstivāda, or "root Sarvāstivāda," to assert their status as the preeminent or original Sarvāstivādins.

See also:Mainstream Buddhist Schools; Mūlasarvāstivāda-vinaya


Cox, Collett. Disputed Dharmas: Early Buddhist Theories on Existence. Tokyo: International Institute for Buddhist Studies, 1995.

Frauwallner, Erich. Studies in Abhidharma Literature and the Origins of Buddhist Philosophical Systems, tr. Sophie Francis Kidd. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995.

Lamotte, Étienne. History of Indian Buddhism: From the Origins to the Saka Era, tr. Sara Webb-Boin. Louvain, Belgium: Peeters Press, 1988.

Collett Cox